Excitable Boy by Dominic Gordon review – punchy tales of masculinity, sex and violence

<span>Author Dominic Gordon, left, and his debut essay collection: Excitable Boy.</span><span>Composite: Upswell</span>
Author Dominic Gordon, left, and his debut essay collection: Excitable Boy.Composite: Upswell

Many young men die or go to jail in Dominic Gordon’s debut essay collection. They do stupid things when they’re wasted, get caught tagging trains or shoplifting. “We loved trains and we loved stealing,” he writes. They graduate from petty crime to more serious offences, from recreational drug use to full-blown addiction. They don’t seem to spend much time with women. Gordon is right in the thick of it and you wonder, often, how he managed to survive and write this book.

I hesitate to call Excitable Boy a memoir, though the material that Gordon draws on is autobiographical. He flouts the conventions of the coming of age story, presenting an account of his adolescence and twenties that is fragmented, circular and discontinuous. He rides trains around Melbourne and walks its streets by night, a witness to crime, sex and violence, and a participant too. There’s little stable ground. His family moves often across Melbourne’s western suburbs; Gordon changes schools when they move, or when his frazzled parents want to get him away from bad influences.

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In the opening essay he sneaks into the Adelphi hotel to swim in the fancy rooftop pool: “It looks a bit complicated to get in, so I stand across the street from it and just watch for a while as people flow past me. No one takes notice of me. I’m small and quick and avoid eye contact.” He meets an older man there, who turns out to be an ex-crim and former user; a reader conditioned to seeing kids as potential victims worries for Gordon, especially when they retreat to a hotel room to smoke drugs together. But the victim-predator dynamic gives way to something more ambiguous and at the end of this vignette, Gordon takes off and the older guy is left weeping, collapsed “into a puddle on the chair”.

Excitable Boy takes the reader into backstreets rarely traversed in Australian literature, which is dominated by the perspectives of middle-class, university educated writers. There are vignettes about graffiti, sex clubs, beats, street fights and hospital emergency rooms. Gordon recounts his own violence without pride or grandiosity: “One of the first punches I ever threw was a real coward’s punch and I broke a knuckle on my right hand in the process.”

There’s an essay set in the reading room of the State Library of Victoria, one of Gordon’s regular haunts – “I spend a lot of time reading with my heart and soul about criminals, conmen, and fugitives of life” – that captures his unique perspective. When a thief enters the library, he notices – and no one else does. “He’s been coming into the library a few times a week to do the rounds,” Gordon writes. “Today, he glides across the floor, arcs the perimeter, takes in the rows of desks, goes up the stairs and does the same thing. Pausing now and then near a desk, where an oblivious person has a handbag or a phone, before moving on.” He doesn’t intervene when the thief tries to lift a bag: “I’ve seen at least two wanted men and one wanted woman hanging out at the State Library at separate times. Fresh off Crimestoppers. It is a place for everyone, after all.”

This is typical of the laconic, detached narration of Excitable Boy and quite rare in a publishing environment that prefers its protagonists to embody bourgeois virtues. This hard-bitten kid is not here to conduct the reader on a journey of personal growth or moral enlightenment. If you squint, you might see an arc of redemption in Excitable Boy, but there’s not a jot of self-pity – and Gordon is not asking the reader for pity either.

A standout essay, Spiralling in Stream C, recounts his time as a Stream C Newstart recipient, a sign that he’s been “deemed to be a legitimately malfunctioning unit”. As a mordant scene in the office of a job service provider unfurls, he explains that he was able to live off the “extremely punitive” Newstart payments by stealing groceries: “I did everything calmly and openly. I liked to maintain a low heart rate. I waited till the timing was right. When someone walked in the doors that swung open, I’d walk right past them.” It might be a desperate situation – but Gordon is no victim.

To understand Excitable Boy in terms of its sociological or documentary value, though, risks selling short Gordon’s aesthetic ambition and achievement. His appraisal of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher trilogy provides a succinct summary of his own artistic credo: “Lots of aggressive movement. Scumbag behaviour. Lost-cause mentality. Tough and relentless.” Here is a stylish writer who takes cues from the gangster films he loves: jump cuts, terse dialogue, gallows humour, no cushy morals or cheap redemption. “Melville went all out with the set pieces,” writes Gordon – and so does he.

Not every beat of this collection lands: there are passages where the rhythm is more monotonous than terse; some of the set pieces drag on. Gordon gets close to questions about the cultures of masculinity that have shaped his attitudes to sex and violence without really answering them. Still, this is a smart debut, surprising and provocative – not, as you may expect, because of its risky subject matter, but ultimately because of its intense aesthetic commitments. I hope Excitable Boy receives as much attention for its style as for the transgressions it charts.

  • Excitable Boy by Dominic Gordon is published by Upswell ($29.99)